‘Day-to-day minutiae of horse racing’: A look into horse fatalities at Golden Gate Fields

Photo of a protest at Golden Gate Fields
Sage Alexander/Staff

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Though only a few miles from the UC Berkeley campus, stepping inside of the Golden Gate Fields takes you into another time period — one with old gray cube televisions and the smell of cigarette smoke. It makes you want to eat a hot dog; it gives you that stuffy casino feeling because you’re listening to decade-old top-40 music and surrounded by neon bar signs, checkered black-and-white tiles and puzzling betting machines.

But outside of the fields, on a bleak December day, protesters began to gather.

The protesters were making a point, standing next to the freeway in the rain. If the horses had to race in the rain, they wanted to be there, too. The activists from animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, believe that racing should not only be halted during bad weather but also that Golden Gate Fields should be shut down entirely. This is because Golden Gate Fields allegedly had the most horse fatalities out of all California horse racing tracks in 2021, according to data aggregated from the California Horse Racing Board, or CHRB, website. 

In the past year, the activist group has organized a half-dozen protests at the fields, pressing it to shut down. This included a heated moment in March, in which four protesters delayed the races by locking themselves together on the track.

Many of the protestors on the rainy December day held cardboard cutouts of tombstones, each engraved with a name of a horse. There were 26 headstones, each representing a horse that had allegedly died at the fields in 2021.

“Honestly, there hasn’t even been an increased number of horses that are dying in the races,” said Samantha Faye, an activist who formerly planned protests against the fields for DxE. “The day-to-day minutiae of horse racing is what causes the vast majority of cruelty to the animals.”

Faye rode horses from an early age. As she grew older, it became her profession to show others’ horses. But one day, during an event, the horse in front of her suddenly died, which she expressed deeply affected her. This led her to quit her job and to find other avenues to work with horses. She previously volunteered with Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses, an organization that finds adoptive homes for former racehorses.

“The day-to-day minutiae of horse racing is what causes the vast majority of cruelty to the animals.”

“I personally placed 20 horses that are still being cared for by the families that bought them from me. But there were just more horses killed this year than I ever would be able to place in my life,” she alleged.

Of the horse fatalities at Golden Gate Fields in 2021, only four died during an actual race, according to data from the CHRB’s website. The remaining fatalities are from the rest of the time in a horse’s day — half of the deaths allegedly occurred during training accidents, and a further nine are classified as “other,” dying in the stalls or as a result of disease. 

“Horses are drugged to mask pain, hiding smaller injuries that lead to catastrophic injuries during exertion. Horses are fed a diet for speed and energy, not health, so many horses develop ulcers that lead to colic from poor diets too high in sugar,” alleged Cassie King, the current Golden Gate Fields lead for DxE, in an email. 

Golden Gate Fields has failed to respond to multiple requests for comment as of press time.

Faye and King alleged the practice of racing horses young is also at odds with animal welfare. Horses are often raced at 18 months, an early age where they are easiest to train to race. This presents a lower risk of injury throughout a race horse’s career, but improper practices such as drug use and overexercise can have a significant impact in the rest of the horse’s life, according to a literature review from Michigan State University. 

This is not only long before they’ve reached their physical maturity, but it’s a long time before they reach their mental maturity,” Faye said. 

She believes the mental immaturity of horses causes their owners to rush training and use physical domination to force horses to comply with demands.

Others within the industry such as Alan Balch, who represents California Thoroughbred Trainers, claim it is preferable to race horses at a young age because they are better equipped to bounce back from injuries and continue racing.

Aside from the racing, the fields are popular for Bay Area residents for another reason. Horse betting is one of the only legal forms of gambling in California, so those who gamble recreationally often habit the fields. 

The betting area at the entrance to the fields is packed with visitors swarming around TVs broadcasting races. People, mostly men, shout at the screens, urging horses sometimes thousands of miles away to run faster. As you walk further through the huge stadium, the crowds thin out. Many areas of the facility are boarded off, with paper signs that state “permanently closed” or “closed for renovation.” A shuttered gift shop, closed Italian food restaurant and an abandoned dollar stand line the path down to the track. 

Faye alleged the problem isn’t these regular gamblers or the families gathered to see the races but the billionaire owners of the track who profit from what she sees as animal abuse. The Stronach Group — a Canadian billionaire dynasty — purchased Golden Gate Fields in 1999 and owns four horse tracks across the nation. Some trainers, too, make huge profits from those who gamble.

According to Equibase, a website that tracks horse racing statistics, many trainers at Golden Gate Fields made six figures from their horses last year. This included individuals listed as experiencing at least one horse fatality in 2021 by the CHRB.

The Fields may feel relatively empty during the races, but thousands of people are watching. Most of the money bets on horses come from people watching live broadcasts of the races, from audiences both in and out of the state. The audience whom the fields serve is mostly removed from the horses, the tracks and the Bay Area at large, betting from facilities in other states.

That eerie silence from the stands is lifted during the races when the sounds of cheering people swell from around the facility. Kids stop their game of “red light, green light” and watch the horses, small hands gripping the fence.

A young girl explained to her little brother that she was celebrating after the horses reached the finish line. Similar to her parents, she was feeling the sweet rush when the horses barreled past, drenched in sweat.

The Fields may feel relatively empty during the races, but thousands of people are watching.

What these kids, their parents, the activists and people in the industry have in common is a great love for horses. Trainers and jockeys are often advocating for horse welfare as much as the veterinarians in regulatory offices. In California, a strong political swell for horse welfare has swept up everyone involved, including the people who govern what horse-racing tracks are allowed to do.

Some of the systemic problems that radical activists accuse horse-racing culture of, such as diet and lifestyle, may be hard to challenge. But there has been one area where significant progress has been made in California. 

Musculoskeletal fatalities are horses who die as a result of catastrophic injury, such as a horse who crashed during a race and broke her leg. Jeffrey Blea, CHRB equine medical director, pointed to a decrease in these types of fatalities by 50% in the past two years. 

Blea believes this decrease is from recent legislative changes and that regulation of the horse-racing industry has made the yearly downward trend in horse deaths possible. Blea described a collaboration between California horse tracks and the CHRB to limit fatalities in recent years, which he referred to as a change of culture that followed a moment of tragedy a few years ago.

In 2019, a rash of gruesome horse deaths in Santa Anita sparked political pressure on the tracks, prompting the CHRB to make reforms. Thirty-seven horses died at the track that year in Southern California, many in wet conditions. The CHRB’s Report on Fatalities at Santa Anita Park from Dec. 12, 2018 through March 31, 2019, found that almost all of the horses who died in catastrophic injuries were being overexerted, exercised until their bodies were at a breaking point. Almost all of the horses who died had preexisting problems at the site of their fatal injury. Horses were overtrained, raced too often, with deadly consequences during races, the report adds.

Thirty-seven horses died at the track that year in Southern California, many in wet conditions.

CHRB spokesperson Mike Marten described California’s laws regulating horse racing as comparatively strict for the United States.

“If we say the horses are not going to run, they are not eligible to run. There is no question,” Blea said. 

The CHRB requires horse tracks to report all fatalities and publishes an updated list of horse deaths to the public that can be viewed online. Marten said the board performs follow-up interviews and necropsies following horse deaths and disagreed with the sentiment that horse deaths go unreported if they die during training.

Blea described other efforts the board is working on. On Jan. 1, 2022, a number of rules were implemented, including the regulation of thyroxine, which is sometimes given to horses to perk them up before a race; however, it comes with health risks in horses’ cardiac systems, according to CHRB’s former equine medical director Rick Arthur. The CHRB is now strictly regulating the use of this drug, as very rarely are racehorses afflicted with the thyroid problem the drug is supposed to treat.

The second rule is a requirement of veterinary examination within 72 hours of a race or workout. In addition, Blea described a previously implemented education requirement for horse trainers: 12 hours of training every three years on horse welfare. 

But during this spirit of animal welfare, Golden Gate Fields saw only a single reduction in horse deaths last year compared to 2020, according to the CHRB’s data. The death toll at the fields is higher than most California race tracks, but the other year-round track in California — Santa Anita — had a comparable number of deaths at 21, according to the same data. Still, the year ended with a close vote by the CHRB to renew the fields’ six month license after concerns arose when four horses died at the fields in November.

After the races, the sun was setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge across the Bay. A warm glow was cast on the fields. I watched people get in their cars and taxis, chittering with content. I imagined the race horses likewise, returning to their stalls, eating dinner, getting washed down by their keepers. At that moment, at least for a moment, everything seemed alright.

Contact Sage Alexander at [email protected].